Since 2006 with the arrival of the first H225M Caracal aircraft, the French Air Force set itself an ambitious objective - to master in-flight refueling with its new helicopters.
Ten years later, the investment has paid off, and this in-flight refueling capability has been fully mastered by the EH 1/67 Pyrénées helicopter squadron based in Cazaux, France. With the support of the Italian and US Air Forces - which both provided tanker aircraft - the squadron has patiently assimilated the procedures and trained its crews. Two thirds of the squadron's pilots are now certified to perform in-flight refueling by day, with this certification even becoming standard within the unit. France is thus one the very few countries in the world to master the procedure.
This capability is now taken into account in operations. The French forces are fully aware of the added operational value a helicopter that can be refueled in flight provides in terms of extended range, stealth and speed of action. Several operational missions have already been performed in the Sahel using this capability, in particular with a non-stop 7-hour flight.
Even better, at the start of the year, the 1/67 Pyrénées squadron took a further step with the certification of its first instructors and pilots for night refueling. The procedure is performed in complete blackout conditions with the only view of the outside world being the greenish image seen in the night vision goggles and that of the FLIR installed in the nose section of the helicopter. This means that even greater concentration and precise piloting are required. To fly a helicopter only a few meters away from a transport aircraft, attached to a boom and with the strong turbulence generated by the propellers is already a complicated operation. To do this at night is a complex maneuver indeed.
Other operators around the world are also exploring this capability such as the Brazilian Air Force which will begin flight tests later this year.